Top of the World
The editor's choice selection of the 10 best new releases, a track from each album appears on the issue's CD covermount.
On first glance, young producer Kottarashky could be seen as some slow-off-the-mark Johnny-come-lately. The Balkans are, after all, a territory trod by plenty of dance music DJs and remixers in recent years, most notably Shantel and Basement Jaxx’s Felix Buxton. But this is a project that’s the most subtle excursion so far, a long way removed from merely super-charging existing recordings with four-to-the-floor beats. Kottarashky’s electronic embellishments serve as gentle accompanists, nudging and cajoling rather than colonising the music. The beats are part of an ensemble, and complement spirals of region-specific clarinet, mournful fiddle riffs and ghostly voices drawn from dusty old field recordings. That Kottarashky is an architect for his day job makes perfect sense. With Balkan folk traditions as his foundations, he’s built something that bears his signature, mixing and matching styles but remaining true to his grand design. An obvious point of comparison would be the Gotan Project’s re-directing of tango towards the 21st century, a project brought to mind here by the loping dub bass lines and snatches of accordion on tunes such as ‘Long Song’ and ‘Tempe’. Narrated by those brief, repeated vocal samples, the songs are richly evocative of modern Eastern Europe, finding the intriguing point where regional and global culture butt heads. But this is no confrontation – the young chap’s clear talents at sonic collage have ensured a unified and balanced work. Purists will probably choose to give it a wide berth, but they’d be ill-advised to do so: Opa Hey! is a tremendously beguiling record.
The diva from Benin returns and as if to announce the fact, Oyo begins with the sustained solo cry of ‘Zelie’, Angélique Kidjo’s high, clear and powerful voice soaring free. On the cusp of 50, Kidjo is looking back to the roots of her inspiration when growing up in Cotonou, principally the American soul and funk of artists like Aretha Franklin and James Brown. As with Kidjo’s 2007 Grammy award-winning album Djin Djin, Oyo features collaborations with major international artists. Contributions here come from soul-man John Legend, on a suitably full-blooded version of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Move On Up,’ and Dianne Reeves, on the gospel-tinged ‘I’ve Got Dreams To Remember’ by Otis Redding. Kidjo has no problem moving from American to African classics. Having led the celebrations of Miriam Makeba’s life at London’s Barbican Centre last year, she includes two songs made famous by ‘Mama Afrika,’ including a soulful rendition of ‘Lakuthn Llanga’. Further highlights are a brief but inspired Benin traditional song ‘Atcha Houn’, an Indian movie tune given an irresistible West African makeover and ‘Afia’, a Kidjo original built around Brazilian grooves. Despite the mesh of styles and tributes, Oyo hangs together surprisingly well, a credit to Kidjo’s African identity and international outlook – she is, after all, a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. Her fantastic band, which also contains some big names (Christian McBride on bass and Benin-born Lionel Loueke on guitar) offers strong support, with a full-fat sound and subtle injection of African flavours. The result is a bright, joyous and accessible album from an African superstar in her prime.
Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabaté
Ali & Toumani
Toumani Diabaté and Ali Farka Touré’s 2005 Grammy-winning collaboration In the Heart of the Moon was about as flawless a record as you could imagine. Yet my ears are telling me that the follow-up is even better. How can that be? Well, perhaps ‘better’ is too simplistic a word; Toumani himself calls it “stronger and wiser,” so let’s settle for that. This album’s brilliance kills the idea that In the Heart of the Moon’s special magic lay in the rootsy, romantic location of the sessions – Bamako’s Hotel Mande, on the banks of the Niger river. The follow-up was recorded in 2005 over three afternoons in the prosaic surroundings of a North London studio, so clearly these guys need no special circumstances beyond their own mutual inspiration to create their syncretic, stringed magic. Sadly, of course, these were Ali’s last recordings and he lost his battle against cancer a few months later. So just what makes Ali & Toumani stronger and wiser than its predecessor? Perhaps it’s simply the diversity and intensity of the musical fantasia the two men create together, with Toumani in particular cutting loose in seemingly bolder fashion than before. The elegant ‘Ruby’ is a terrific opener, full of ecstatic, chiming kora (harp-lute) arpeggios over Ali’s pulse-like guitar. ‘Sabu Yerkoy’ is sprightlier, with a gentle vocal from Ali underpinned by a simple, joyous bass line from Cuba’s Cachaíto Lopez, who also passed away not long after these recordings. ‘Warbe’, ‘Samba Geladio’ and ‘Machengoidi’ are deep excursions into the desert blues. ‘Be Mankan’ is all classical grace and poise, while ‘Doudou’ is more playful. ‘Fantasy’ is a lullaby of exquisite sweetness, while the closer ‘Kala Djula’ is perhaps the album’s most enchanting tune, like an African cousin to Henry Purcell’s ‘Lillibullero’. At the very end of the record, Ali’s voice is heard saying ‘Eh, voilà’, as if suggesting that that’s it; it’s perfect and there’s really nothing left to say.
Le Vent du Nord
La Part du Feu
This attractive mix of merriment, melancholy, and mystery as much reflects Le Vent du Nord’s approach to assembling and recording repertoire as it does the culture of Québec (where the group is based) and the adjoining provinces of north-eastern Canada. Artful players and singers, the quartet have transmuted material from ancestral memories, informal jam sessions, cross-Atlantic visits to France and Ireland, and even melodic snippets left on an answering machine. Their sophisticated melding of original and traditional material is informed by their backgrounds in jazz and classical music, but they generally avoid flamboyance and over-production, sticking with acoustic instrumentation. They’re steeped in the folk music of their region, with its trademark use of accordion (or concertina) and fiddle, backed up by guitar and piano, and a solo vocal echoed by a chorus (in French). On ‘La Mine’, a sad testimony to mining disasters in the Maritimes, Simon Beaudry employs a bouzouki with a metal slide, and for the highly emotive ‘Rossignolet’ (which derives from Québecois and Acadien sources), the drone of Nicolas Boulerice’s vielle à roue (hurdy-gurdy) is enhanced by audio engineer Mark Busic. Celtic influence is strong throughout north-eastern Canada and is reflected on this album, with seated fiddler Olivier Demers audibly beating out jigs and reels with his feet. You’d be hard pushed to find such imaginative change-ups of tempo and rhythm and such freshness of sound, except perhaps among the best and brightest of contemporary Scandinavian groups – with whom Le Vent du Nord share some spirit and musical history.
The Süddeutsche funkateers are back with a bang. For those listeners who were lucky enough to stumble across last year’s Habediehre, it was the shock of the season: a Bavarian five-piece, just three horns, vocals, electric bass and drums, performing their own songs in the local dialect. But what singer Stefan Dettl does with this combination is beyond any expectation: there’s a straight-up pop sensibility as sharp as that of MGMT or any of the latest alt-electro-pop hyphenated genres. And with Übersee, LaBrassBanda might just have delivered the surprise underground hit of the year. Three things leap out: killer US R&B-style grooves and licks; top musicianship; and a totally cliché-free approach. It kicks so hard that it really doesn’t matter if you understand the words or not. Opening track ‘Bierzelt’ sounds like Beyoncé opening Oktoberfest; ‘Des Konnst Glam’ is a swinging blow-out with all the funk of 70s legends Brass Construction; ‘Ringlbleame’ does the same with the added bonus of a hook-laden pop chorus; while on ‘Nanana’, they show they can also play it as sweet and spiritual as a New Orleans shout band. It’s fresh, confident and totally unlike anything else out there. Get onto this before everyone else does.
To illustrate the lyrical and incisive dissection of public ills and private graces that is Handmade Life, the album’s artwork sees the award-winning guitarist and songwriter Chris Wood getting his hands around his allotment. He’s digging deep and close to home. The music inside is less a disparate collection of songs than a cohesive work – a folk concept album. Wood concocts a unique ensemble sound around Andy Gangadeen on drums, cellist Barney Morse Brown and trombonist Robert Jarvis. He’s called it “church music with drums,” and it’s couched in autumnal, introspective textures, as if these songs had just emerged from purposeful hibernation, written from a personal place, withdrawn from a chaotic world. From the opener, ‘No Honey Tongued Sonnet’, his intent is clear: ‘All the king’s horses and all the king’s men/I’m sorry but they haven’t a clue//How to put the pieces together again/It’s just going to have to be you.’ Not that’s it’s an overly polemical album; there are beautiful love songs with political shading, alongside topical songs imbued with a sense of personal and collective history. With ‘Hollow Point’, a ballad concerning the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, and the epic calling-to-account of the closing ‘Grand Correction’, Wood delivers masterpieces that tackle the great public outrages of our times – finance, politics and terror. But there’s still room for a beautiful little song about asparagus that makes you want to lean down and pick it.
Out of Sight
The Polish trio Kroke formed back in 1992 and started playing Jewish klezmer in their home city of Krakow – around the time Spielberg was using it as a backdrop for Schindler’s List. Since they started with the Oriente label in 1996, they’ve made a substantial journey as a band – weaving longer and more ambitious pieces out of the klezmer repertoire, writing their own evocative tunes, and collaborating with violinist Nigel Kennedy – with whom they were touring again in December. Tomasz Kukurba (viola), Jerzy Bawol (accordion) and Tomasz Lato (double bass) have really returned to form with this disc and have gone back to their basic trio format (after adding percussionist Tomasz Grochot on their previous two albums). The opening ‘Medinet’, written by Lato, is immediately recognisable as a Kroke tune – the delicate melody, the limping 7/8 beat, the nostalgic mood. It’s nuanced by Kukurba’s viola playing, his feathery bowing creating ghostly, wiry textures full of false harmonics. It’s a gorgeous effect he uses on several tracks, including ‘Janitsa’, a piece that’s more upbeat and Balkan in character. ‘Moondowner’ might have a name that sounds like a dodgy cocktail but it’s nevertheless an achingly beautiful tune performed in turn by viola, accordion and plucked bass. The Jewish elements are concentrated into two tracks by Kukurba at the heart of the album: ‘Fields of Sorrow,’ sung as a wordless lament (like a nigun) over a simple chordal accompaniment and ‘A Luftmentsch’, light-hearted and klezmer-like. The use of Kukurba’s vocals, flute and percussion brings variety to the instrumental texture. There’s a real depth and beauty to the music on this album – one of Kroke’s best. It shows their abilities as talented and emotive composers, arrangers and performers.
Razia Said is an unfamiliar name in the world of Malagasy music: she has lived outside Madagascar since she was ten years old and now lives in the US. Zebu Nation is a collection of her songs about aspects of Malagasy life and the trials and tribulations of Madagascar itself. There is a strong ecological theme running through her music, raising questions about deforestation and the agricultural practice known as tavy, or slash-and-burn. Her intentions are worthy and are, sadly, unlikely to have much effect on the massive international timber piracy that is illegally stripping the national parks of millions of tons of rosewood from the north-eastern primary forests. Razia’s music is a soothing counter to the terrible situation that Madagascar finds itself in, after recent political turmoil that has resulted in the country becoming isolated and cut off from essential international aid.Zebu Nation was recorded in Brooklyn, Harlem, Manhattan, Paris and Antananarivo. It leaves an overall soft and wistful impression, notwithstanding the energetic contributions from several established Malagasy recording musicians, including the highly talented Dozzy Njava – who produced the album, sings backing vocals, and plays electric and acoustic guitars, accordion, violin, viola and sitar. Razia sings in Malagasy, French and English in a gentle, laid-back style. This is a well-produced studio album with a conceptual approach. It may be outside the normal genre of Madagascar’s popular music but this is a disc with heart and sincerity.
Oswin Chin Behilia
The Dutch Antillean island of Curaçao hasn’t yet become a central presence on the world music landscape, but these gorgeous songs by local legend Oswin Chin Behilia should change that. Behilia has been around since the 1960s, his infectiously melodic compositions – sung in Spanish, Portuguese and the local creole, Papiamentu – famously veil social comments and hard-hitting criticisms of the island’s continuing colonial relationship with the Netherlands. Corruption is a dominant theme here but as with much Caribbean music, these messages are coated with a lilting loveliness, which drives you to shimmy and sing along to the eclectic pan-Caribbean backings. There are love songs and a couple of tracks dedicated to food: the raunchy ‘Den Bo Kushina’ (In Your Kitchen) and light-hearted ‘Buta la Pasta’ (Serve the Pasta), praising a new arrival’s cooking. Behilia’s music evokes richly textured, changing landscapes, with Arnell Salsbach’s piano solos conjuring memories of Rubén González, and Behilia’s own rhythmic guitar exploring all corners of the Caribbean. ‘Zinkinzá’ is clip-clopping salsa, and ‘Di Malu en Peor’ (From Bad to Worse) is a rocking soca-ish dance track showcasing the leader’s voice. ‘Sigi Traha e Bom’ (Keep Working on the Bomb) is a searing indictment of Holland’s control over Curaçao’s economic future. It closes with a rousing salsa-soca sing-along led by jangling, tres-like guitar from Behilia and rippling steel drum, which distracts from his caustic lyrics. These are irresistible songs contrived to make people listen and dance.
Dhrupad & Khyal
The veena is one of the oldest Indian musical instruments of the lute family, probably dating back to the first millennium BC. The kind we usually encounter in North Indian classical music is the rudra veena, while the instrument featured on this disc is the vichitra veena. A relatively modern invention, it is fretless with sympathetic strings that are played by being stopped by a glass ball held in the left hand, in a manner similar to the Hawaiian guitar. Gopal Krishnan has taken the vichitra veena to new heights with further modifications that enable this noble instrument to be played faster than would normally be possible. He begins with the rarely heard ‘Raga Mangal Bhairav’ – an early morning scale characterised by a mood of deep meditation. But he delivers this in the style of khayal, an ornamented classical vocal style, when one would have expected to hear dhrupad, a more austere vocal style, closely associated with the veena. In the following piece, the reverse takes place: the light-hearted, romantic ‘Raga Tilak Kamod’ (usually reserved for semi-classical song forms) is performed in the style of dhrupad. Treated in this surprising way, both ragas come across as brand new. Anindo Chatterjee’s tabla – played in the style of pakhavaj, an ancient barrel-shaped drum, the usual accompaniment for veena and dhrupad – is simply out of this world. The final track is a ‘Raga Bhairavi’, played in the style of thumri (light classical song), which just goes to show that despite its majestic overtones, the veena can also be very flexible and lyrical. On this track, Chatterjee dazzles us again – albeit this time with the tabla firmly back in tabla mode. Overall, this is an outstanding disc featuring a very rare string instrument – with fabulous percussion to boot.